Can You Om Your Way to Airplane Comfort?


by Robert McGarvey


Can you om your way to happiness at 30,000 feet? Or at least to a state of heightened comfort?

That is the question that popped into my mind when I saw a story in Well + Good headlined, “Finally Airplanes Are Doing Something to Make Flying Less Stressful.”  The story’s pitch: airlines are taking steps to, well, make flying less stressful.

Are they giving us more pitch in coach? Making seats wider? Filling fewer seats? Pouring decent and free drinks? Serving edible – real – food?

None of the above.  Apparently – and Well + Good cites a NYTimes piece as backup – airlines led by United and JetBlue now are offering free access during flights to the popular meditation app Headspace.

Headspace is an entirely sincere meditation app company that has won substantial success as a paid app.  It’s gotten acres of press.  The basic plan is a monthly subscription ($12.99/month, or $7.99/month on an annual subscription) and lots of people praise it.

I’m not putting Headspace down.

I’m not putting meditation down.  I’ve personally put in hundreds of hours meditating at Shambhala’s Chelsea space and I have pointed a number of friends there.

No, I am not a meditation basher.

But when I read that United Airlines – that United, of Dr. Dao infamy and the recent death of a little dog — thinks that if we meditate we may be more tolerant of the airline’s gaffes, well, no.  Count me out.

Other airlines also are piling onto meditation, reported Well + Good. BA, apparently, has an inflight entertainment channel that offers meditations.  Swiss Air and Cathay also have offerings.

Let me inject some skepticism. As a veteran of many hours on the cushions at Shambhala I can assure you that – even with excellent in-person instructors leading small programs – it takes a lot of practice to begin to get the hang of meditating.

How does it go wrong? Let me count the ways. The essential issue is that to successfully meditate one must still the mind – in Shambhala’s case this revolves around a focus on the breath – and that just is not easy for a beginner.

It is especially not easy in a stressful situation and flying in today’s crowded coach, with grumpy passengers and not enough space, is a prescription for a stressful situation.

Go ahead, try to hold focus for 10 minutes. You probably can’t. If you get to five when you are beginning, kudos to you. You’re a natural.

Longtime meditators, many of them, have trouble going beyond 20 minute sessions.

How long is that flight, by the way?

Meantime, I’m looking at a 2015 article in Fortune that said “The average seat pitch, a rough measure of legroom, has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has shriveled from 18 inches to about 16 ½.”

Pitch on some airlines has fallen to as little as 28″.

You think meditation will help you with that?

In India, there are holy men called sadhus who are said to be able to meditate for years. Some even master lying on a literal bed of nails (photos here). I suppose that being able to like a bed of nails might be a good prerequisite for a flyer in 2018 coach.

But is that a reason to take up meditation?

Personally, I really, really dislike seeing wonderfully good things – and meditation is one of them – co-opted by companies that deploy them in what looks to me like an attempt to get us to accept unpleasant accommodations.

“Stop your whining and meditate!” That is the only way I can interpret what some airlines seem to be practicing. It certainly is cheaper to shovel a meditation app our way than to actually address the deplorable conditions in coach.

Incidentally, there are many dozens of meditation apps – some free – in both Google Play and the Apple App Store.  Download a few, try them out, make it a DIY project. You don’t need an airline’s nudge.

Here’s a free YouTube video where Shambhala founder Chogyam Trungpa teaches meditation.

Here’s a short how-to write up by Trungpa.

You just may find meditation is exactly the thing for our age of stresses.

As for the matter at hand, can I personally attest that my hours of meditation study have made me a happier flyer?  I cannot.

But an unexpected upgrade to business class still works magic on my mood.


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